Signs Point to Christ

 Photo by  Jens Johnsson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash

In last Sunday’s Gospel text I was intrigued by how often in John’s Gospel miracles are referred to as “signs”! I count 17 times. The use of this word is instructive.

Now a sign is something that points beyond itself. When we use our hands to signal someone, we are trying to point them in the right direction. When we use letters, the letters as they form words, point to some thought or some object. When we sign our name, our name represents us and hopefully our integrity. When we encounter a billboard or traffic signal along the highway, it points to something up ahead.

So when our Lord worked a great wonder, what is often called a miracle, to call this a sign should help us to understand that this is pointing us to something, or someone, beyond itself. And John the Evangelist, the writer of the fourth Gospel, is very clear as to what the miracle points. He writes, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30-31).

To put it succinctly, faith in Jesus is the point of all the signs! He is the one who can forgive, restore, and give us Divine life in his name.

If we are not careful we can think that the purpose of the miraculous in Scripture is so that we can learn the art and perform miracles ourselves. Or we might think that if we have the right kind of faith we might have an endless line of getting whatever we ask for. But with both of these options we take center stage and our Lord Jesus becomes a supporting actor. Miracles, as signs, remind us that we have bit parts in the drama in which God stars!

Miracles point to our Lord Jesus so that we might put our trust in him, and by so doing find life in his name.

Since You Asked…

Why do we say in the Creeds that Jesus Christ “is seated at the right hand of the Father”? Does this mean that our Lord is far away from us?

This has little to do with Christ’s physical location. Instead it has to do with the authority he assumes. For a King to be seated on a throne is a symbolic gesture of his rule and authority. Heaven itself is a reality that transcends time and space. It is the unseen and timeless realm that underlies the visible and temporal world. We confess Christ to be seated at the right hand of the Father because we believe him to be the rightful King of the universe. Indeed, Jesus is Lord!

 

Christ Centered

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We claim to be “Christ-Centered”. And in our reading of Holy Writ we teach that the Scriptures all point to Christ, and that he is their fulfillment.

We catch our clues from Scripture itself. For instance, Jesus is recorded to have said to the religious authorities of his day, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me” (Jn. 5:39). And many of those leaders refused to come to Jesus that they might have life.

Even Jesus’ handpicked followers had trouble connecting the dots. They were hopeful that Jesus might be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures. Certainly the great signs and wonders Jesus performed lent credibility to this hope. But when the Master started to talk about his suffering and death, they began to have doubts. They did not know that the vocation of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant was to be equated with the conquering Messianic King. They never imagined suffering and death as a means of victory. They were not anticipating a Suffering Messiah dying an atoning and substitutionary death.

But starting with Genesis, the first Book of the Bible, God’s master plan for his creation is laid out. You have the account of a good creation corrupted by sin, and then the Lord God going immediately to work to redeem and restore it. Already you have Jesus pointed to in chapter three when the Lord God speaks to the serpent, that is the devil, that the seed of the woman would deliver a fatal blow to him. Then in chapter 12 you have the election of Abraham and his descendants chosen for a special vocation to bless all people. And by Genesis’ end you have the future seed of the woman hinted at in Jacob’s blessing to Judah and his tribe.

Space does not permit me to continue. But consider the Apostle Paul’s words, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Ro. 10:17). Indeed, we are Christ centered!

Since You Asked…

What does the Pastor’s Stole signify? (the stole is the colored strip of cloth that loops around the back of the neck and hangs from both shoulders)

The stole represents a yoke such as would be used to link and employ an ox with a plow or cart. When a work animal is yoked to a task, that animal comes under the rule and guidance of its master. As Christians we are to be yoked to Christ (cf. Mt. 11:28-30). We are to fear, love, serve, and obey the Lord Jesus Christ. The Pastor’s stole is therefore not only a sign of ordination in the Lutheran Church, but it visibly reminds the whole congregation of our servant hood to Christ.

 

The Day of Judgment and the Book of Life

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Does anyone hear mention of God’s judgment these days? Do believers need to take the Day of Judgment seriously? Do we ever talk about God’s holy wrath?

Thanks for asking! You did ask, didn’t you?

The Apostle Paul writes to the Roman Church, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). This is an early indication of what is to come. The temporal wrath, revealed now, can work remedially to those who humble themselves and accordingly seek safe shelter from God’s ultimate wrath on the Day of Judgment.

As Lutherans, every week we confess in the Creed, “I believe … that he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” In the Book of Revelation we learn in the 20th chapter that we will all stand before the great White Throne of Judgment. The books will be opened. As in a courtroom all the evidence will be presented. God’s verdict will not be arbitrary, but completely just. All of us will be fairly convicted for our evil thoughts, words, and deeds. (cf. Psa. 14:1-3; Rom. 3:10, 23) On our own merits we stand condemned!

So are we to fear God’s wrath? We would be fools not to. Luther states in his Small Catechism concerning obedience to God’s commandments, “We are to fear his wrath and not disobey him.”

In fact, apart from this fearful reality, I’m not sure any of us would cling to the merciful remedy that our Heavenly Father has provided for us through the death and resurrection of his dear Son!

There is a final book to be opened on the Day of Judgment. And that is the Book of Life! Those whose names are recorded there will be sheltered from the dire final consequences of their sins. These are they who knowing themselves unworthy, and fearing God’s wrath, have clung to the gift of Christ’s righteousness in their stead. Knowing of the Judgment matters!

Since You Asked…

Why is the Triune Name of God repeated so frequently in our worship services?

The mystery of the Trinity is one of the most distinctive elements of our Christian Tradition. Christianity is not alone in claiming to be monotheistic (belief in one Supreme Being, one god). But Christianity holds that this One, True God has revealed himself to us as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Scripture teaches that God the Father has revealed himself through God the Son and in God the Spirit. Only the Son can be seen, and only through the Spirit are we enabled to believe in the Father and the Son. And so we often invoke the name of the Triune God in the mystery of our faith.

 

"In Wisdom You Have Made Them All"

“O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties, Above the fruited plain!” I thought of these lyrics as Leslie and I chugged our way on the Empire Builder across the plains of North Dakota and Montana until we arrived at East Glacier Park. And what we saw there was awe inspiring! Truly majestic! Beautiful in splendor and magnificence!

We took this trip to mark our 40th Wedding Anniversary. I stretch the truth a wee bit when I say Glacier National Park was a compromise between an Alaskan Cruise and a desire to sun on the beaches in the Virgin Islands.

The path of the Amtrak we traveled on passed right by Rugby, North Dakota. The significance you ask? That is Naomi Rislow’s hometown. And as we passed by Leslie texted Naomi letting her know we paid appropriate homage.

The entire trip was wonderful with many memorable highlights. But easily the most memorable experience was our close encounter with a Moose. Well actually it was two Moose, a mother cow and her young calf. And yes, the plural of Moose is Moose, and not Meese. And yet the plural of Goose is Geese. Go figure the English language… This particular pair of Moose was insistent on using the hiking path we were on. They persisted. We yielded. You need to ask Leslie about the experience!

I share this with you because I am having trouble coming home from this vacation, so I thought I would bring it back with me and see if I could make hay with it. So let me match our experience of God’s creation with a Psalm. “From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. … The high mountains are for the wild goats; … You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about. … In wisdom you have made them all.” (Psalms 104:13,18,20,24)

Since You Asked…

Why do we stand during the reading of the Gospel Lesson?

What is the purpose of the Psalm Reading? And why do we often sing (chant) the Psalm?

“The appointed psalm is sung as a meditation on the First Lesson, a response to it, and a bridge to the Second Lesson. … Hearers of the lessons need a chance to assimilate the First Lesson before the Second Lesson begins. The required use of a psalm between the lessons provides for the restoration of psalm singing to its traditional place in the life of the church and gives the worshiper the opportunity to participate in the singing (or reading) of a portion of Scripture…” (from “Manual on the Liturgy” companion to the LBW, from Augsburg Pub.)

 

Thanks!

The Congregation caught me by surprise. I was not expecting it. I did not know you knew. And on sudden notice Leslie needed to fly out of town the day before to Dallas, Texas, so she wasn’t here for it. I speak of the reception after the Divine Service, on Sunday, June 10, for celebrating the 35th Anniversary of my ordination.

Word had gotten around that Pastor liked pie better than cake. How did anyone find this out? And so there were seven different pies made for the occasion! Yum.

And some very kind words were spoken. Of course the accolades were exaggerations, but the affection and gratitude intended in their expression warmed my heart and were encouraging.

How gratifying to hear tributes echoing leading themes I intend in my preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. Themes such as being Christ’s centered, as recognizing the authority of Scripture, as in knowing that faith comes from the hearing of God’s Word, and as in understanding that our life in Christ is one of ongoing repentance and the need to hear the word of forgiveness, were being bounced back.

And there was another aspect to the Divine Service on June 10 that I will not soon forget that made the day special. Due to Leslie’s unexpected absence, and Tom Rislow’s planned trip away, we were without piano accompaniment! I suggested during the announcements at the beginning of the service that we attempt the liturgy and hymns a cappella. I suggested we try it, and if it didn’t work we would try something else.

Fortunately for us, Mike Meunier was the Assisting Minister, and he was prepared to give us the pitch and lead us all the way. What followed was simply beautiful. We have such a good singing congregation! Although we are all glad to welcome the accompanists back, we were not hamstrung by their absence. It was just one more thing to make the day memorable. Thanks!

Since You Asked…

Why do we stand during the reading of the Gospel Lesson?

By standing we are giving expression of special respect and adoration. In the Gospel Accounts we meet our Lord Jesus Christ in a special way. In these writings we are presented with Jesus’ Judean and Galilean ministry. We also have a record of the very words of our Lord (his teachings, parables, dialog, etc.). We hear the accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the work of our salvation.

Although the entire Bible is the Word of God, it is in the Gospels that our Lord is most directly presented to us. So you might say that Christ himself is being presented before us in the Gospel Lesson. It is therefore most appropriate that we stand at attention.

Praying to the Lord of the Harvest

 Photo by  Olivia Snow  on  Unsplash

Photo by Olivia Snow on Unsplash

When you hear the word outreach what comes to mind?

There is renewed interest in focusing on our congregational outreach. We know that it is what we are to be about! And necessarily last year we were focused on some organizational matters. We were overdue in adopting a Constitution and in issuing an official call to a Pastor. Thankfully, those important tasks are behind us.

Constitutionally, and by broad agreement at our Annual Meeting, we have formed an Outreach Team. Much fruit is already accruing from this team, but at our June meeting we arrived at a consensus that we must be careful not to get the cart out ahead of the horse!

What I mean by that is, as we believe, teach and confess that it is God’s Word that gifts us with faith, and animates our lives; and as we believe prayer is the humble means whereby we receive what God gives through his Word, we believe effective outreach needs to be blanketed from start to finish with prayer! Of course we will use our noodles (brains) and pool ideas and do planning, but apart from prayer we risk missing where God is at work.

After his death and resurrection, Our Lord Jesus entrusted his ongoing mission to his chosen disciples. The Apostolic proclamation that in Christ’s death and resurrection there is forgiveness to those who repent was to be broadcast to every nation. Disciples would be formed through Baptism and instruction.

But first, the disciples were to wait upon the Lord and his promise to pour out upon them his Spirit. And so the disciples were gathered for prayer! It was after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Jewish Festival of Pentecost that incredible outreach began to take place. It is exciting to read about it in the Book of Acts! God orchestrated events that exceeded anything that the disciples could have planned, and opportunities for proclaiming Christ abounded.

And so, the Outreach Team is summoning us to prayer! On Sunday mornings at 8:15. Will you join us?

Since You Asked…

Do Lutherans Promote Private Confession?

“Confession has not been abolished by the preachers on our side. … The people are carefully instructed concerning the consolation of the Word of absolution (forgiveness) so that they may esteem it as a great and precious thing. It is not the voice of the man who speaks it, but it is the Word of God, who forgives sin, for it is spoken in God’s stead and by God’s command. …it is necessary for terrified consciences” (Augsburg Confession, XXV)

Confession has two parts: First that we confess our sins, and second, that we receive absolution, that is, forgiveness, from the Pastor as from God himself.

Tradition - Passing on the Faith

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When you hear the word traditional what is your immediate reaction? Is its meaning positive, negative, or neutral?

I ask the question because one of the four attributes that both the LCMC and the NALC use to describe themselves is that they are Traditionally-Grounded. And there are many of us, your Pastor included, happy to be connected with that identification.

Jaroslav Pelikan, a noted Church historian, distinguished between tradition and traditionalism, with a memorable definition. He said, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”

As Christians we believe, teach and confess, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “the communion of saints.” We also believe, teach and confess, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” That is to say, as believers we are part of a long line of believers down through the ages. Those belonging to preceding generations, though buried and awaiting the resurrection of the body, are still very much alive and in Christ’s presence. And all of us are grounded upon the apostolic proclamation and teaching. It is the foundation of our very own faith.

The Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “So then you are … members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (2:19-20). And Jude writes in his New Testament letter, “contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (1:3).

The desire to be traditional in Christianity does not mean that we wish to be living in an earlier time. Instead, it means that we very much hope to be sharing in the identical “saving faith” that Peter and Paul believed and proclaimed. It means that although we are living twenty centuries later, we know ourselves to be a part of the same community, indeed the family of God. For we are not looking for novelty, but for belonging and for permanence.

Since You Asked…

What is the meaning of the “KYRIE” (kir-E-A)?

KYRIE is a Latin term which is in turn is a transliteration of a Greek word meaning “Lord.” In the Latin Mass the term KYRIE was combined with the term ELESION meaning “have mercy.” In addition, the Mass included a three-fold response: KYRIE ELEISON, CHRISTE ELEISON, KYRIE ELEISON, which translated is “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.” In our Lutheran Worship Service we utilize a prayer from the Latin Mass known as a Peace Litany. A Litany is a responsive prayer. This Litany is usually led by our Assisting Minister, and the congregation response is the KYRIE ELEISON. And so the Assisting Minister begins, “In peace let us pray to the Lord,” and the congregation responds to this and each succeeding petition with, “Lord, have mercy.” (with help from the Manual on the Liturgy a companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, publ. by Augsburg).

Reaching Beyond Our Walls

Our newly formed Outreach Team, under the direction of our Vice President, Jarrod Roll, is off to a good start. Let me hasten to initially say, this is not the group responsible for doing outreach. That privilege belongs to all of us! Rather, this team is providing leadership, strategizing, and planning for how we reach out to the community beyond our walls at Gift of Grace.

An interesting challenge we are working with in the early going is the question, how do we talk about ourselves to others? Those on the team have no trouble speaking enthusiastically about what excites us about our congregational family. The challenge appears to be using words that might make sense to outsiders, especially those with different faith heritages, or those with little or no church background.

For instance, many of us like the aspect that we are traditional, both as a congregation and in our affiliation with the North American Lutheran Church. To many of us, that means that we are grounded and established on a firm foundation. But to many we are trying to reach out to, the term “traditional” may seem to suggest that we enjoy being antiquated and unconnected with our present age.

We have lots of buzz words, or jargon, that makes sense to us, but may not convey the meaning that we wish to convey to others. Examples might include being “Christ Centered”, that we emphasize “grace”, that we are “Cross Focused”, that we enjoy the “objective realities” of our salvation, that we are a church of “Word and Sacrament”, and so on.

Give me an hour to tell someone about our congregation and the riches of the Lutheran tradition, and I would hope I could do a fair job. But to share with those who might be a little curious or interested, but are not ready for a full discourse, I find it more challenging. Perhaps you do as well. Prayerfully, we are working on it. I will keep you posted. We would be glad to have you weigh in.

Since You Asked…

What is the purpose of the “Silence for reflection and self-examination” in the Brief Order For Confession and Forgiveness?

“The silence for self-examination and reflection should be an extended silence to enable personal application of the general phrases of the prayer that follows. Silence of one or two minutes is not too long” (Manual on the Liturgy – LBW). This is a helpful time to reflect back on our lives over the past week and ask ourselves whether we have been disobedient or unfaithful, bad-tempered or dishonest, or whether we have hurt anyone by word or deed. By allowing for this period of reflection we are able to personalize what would otherwise remain quite general.

Reformation and Renewal

With this week’s Grace Notes we will complete our tour of Luther’s Small Catechism. I trust you will conclude, as have countless others, that The Small Catechism one of the richest treasures that we have on offer from our Lutheran Tradition. A person would be hard pressed to have a better summary of the important teachings of the Christian Faith!

The great reformers throughout the ages, including Doctor Martin Luther, would agree that reformation is an ongoing need. Certainly we sense the Church in our present culture is in need of reform, renewal, and more urgent outreach.

Many responding to that need today are relying on human ingenuity. With a consumerist mindset efforts are made to market the faith. The attempt is made to attract and hold the interest of others. Often this involves tremendous effort. It sometimes pays in terms of full parking lots and overflowing offering plates. Yet at the end of the day, can it unquestionably be affirmed that this was God’s work?

I would hope that the time we have spent reviewing the Small Catechism has served to remind us that Christ is the master builder of his Church. And that his chief means of grace, that is, the way he delivers to us the benefits of his crucifixion and resurrection, is by Word and Sacrament.

Classically, reform and renewal have come about as more serious attention has been paid to catechesis (teaching), to ongoing repentance (confession and absolution), and to yielding to the Holy Spirit as he gathers believers around the proclamation of the Gospel and the reception of the  Sacraments – Baptism at our initiation, and Holy Communion for ongoing sustenance.

As Luther reminds us, “In the same way he calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it united with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church day after day he fully forgives my sins and the sins of all believers.” This we believe and are compelled to share with others.

Since You Asked…

What do Lutherans believe is given in Holy Communion?

“We believe, teach, and confess that in the Holy Supper the body and blood of Christ are truly and essentially present and are truly distributed and received with the bread and wine. We believe, teach, and confess that the words of the testament of Christ are to be understood in no other way than in their literal sense, and not as though the bread symbolized the absent body and the wine the absent blood of Christ, but that because of the sacramental union they are truly the body and blood of Christ” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, Art. VII.)

The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10 that the bread is “a participation in the Lord’s body.” If the Lord’s body were not truly present, the bread would perhaps be a participation in his spirit. But Paul says it is a participation in his body!

Coming Clean

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Last week I wrote about the sins one might want to confess in Private Confession. Mention was made of those sins that especially trouble us. Those sins in particular weigh us down. The weight is lifted when as penitent sinners we believe Christ’s promise to forgive. And audibly hearing that promise, repeatedly made, can help instill confidence in our Lord’s promises.

When you make confession to God in the presence of a Pastor, this is a time, not for making excuses, but for coming clean and clearly acknowledging that we have sinned. Details are not as important as honesty. For example, confessing that I have been unfaithful, untruthful, or unforgiving is to the point. Divulging a lot of information is not the point!

As your Pastor I like to use our Lutheran Book of Worship to frame the time for Private Confession. You can take a look at the rite on pages 196-7. It is called “Individual Confession And Forgiveness.”

In this rite I ask the one making confession (the penitent), “Are you prepared to make your confession.” The Pastor and the penitent are then able to recite parts of Psalm 51 and 103 together. Then the penitent begins his confession, “I confess before God that I am guilty of many sins. Especially I confess before you that …” And he ends, “For this I am sorry and I pray for forgiveness. I want to do better.”

The Pastor may engage in conversation and offer comfort from the Scripture, but the important part is when he says, “Do you believe that the word of forgiveness I speak to you comes from God himself?” “Yes, I believe,” is the hoped for reply. Then laying hands on the penitent the Pastor says, “God is merciful and blesses you. By the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I, a called and ordained servant of the Word, forgive you your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Since You Asked…

What is the significance of the Day of Pentecost?

A principal Festival, The Day of Pentecost (Jewish harvest festival) was the occasion when the promised gift of the Holy Spirit was sent and poured out on the expectant church. It accordingly marks the culmination of the Easter Season. It occurs 50 days after Easter Sunday. Jesus had promised his followers that when he departed from them (the ascension, not the crucifixion) that he would not leave them as orphans. In fact, until his return at the end of the age, it would be to their advantage that he was departing, for then he would send the Holy Spirit as one called alongside them to comfort them, teach them, guide them, and empower them, even as the Holy Spirit continued to sanctify them (to make holy).